Tuesday, May 28, 2024

DeeperBlue At 21: How It All Started


DeeperBlue.com (or DB as it’s become to be known) has become one of the most-popular diving websites in the world covering all sorts of topics like Freediving, Scuba Diving, Spearfishing, Diving Travel, and Underwater Imaging, yet it had very humble beginnings that many fans are unaware of. As DB celebrates 21 years in existence this year, I talked to founder Stephan Whelan and some of his contributors to get the full story.

“In the days when cell phones were new, no-one counted syllables to 140. There we were, spread around the world – I was in Hong Kong, we never met or even talked. It was a privilege to dream with Stephan and you know what he did.” Mal James (Scuba Editor 2000-2004)

Stephan got bitten by the diving bug early in life. His first scuba experience was a try-dive when he was eight years old on a family holiday in Europe, and from that moment, he was addicted. He learned to dive properly with BSAC (British Sub Aqua Club) as soon as he could at school and then did his BSAC Assistant Instructor when he turned 16. By the time he was heading to university in 1996, he was hooked on teaching and diving as much as he could.

The Evolution of the DeeperBlue.com Logo
The Evolution of the DeeperBlue.com Logo

By the time he started studying at university, he decided to have a go at flexing his web-design skills by publishing some of the – extensive! – stories he had built up about various ‘challenging’ students and dives he had encountered, and so deeperblue.net (as it was known then) was created. He published numerous personal stories until 1998 when other writers began enquiring about contributing to the site with their tales, and it was at this moment he decided to make it more like a magazine format and began asking for volunteer helpers. He got a couple of editors on board, and plenty of writers began contributing.

“I’m shocked at how much time has passed. For me, the funny thing is that I started writing for DeeperBlue.com as a scuba aficionado and an instructor, and of course, I’m still an instructor, but my passion has migrated to no tanks! My first article was 17 September 2003 and it was about the specialty of diving in kelp. I had the distinct honor of writing about Stephen’s marriage proposal in 2008, and then in 2009, I really got into freediving and that became my main interest, my focus, and my beat. We actually met for the first time in Miami at the DEMA show in 2003. My memory fails me a bit, but the whole DEMA 2003 experience, including meeting Stephan, was larger than life! I was a relatively new MSDT and the fact that there was this big dive show was incredible, I’d never been to Miami before and so that was super cool, and then meeting this extraordinary Whelan character was the cherry on top. The funny thing is that while we all know Stephan for his jovial good nature and being the life of the party, he has been a real visionary driving force for the dive industry and, in particular, promoting the sport and athletes of freediving. He innovated before everyone and he’s as dedicated as they come. DeeperBlue.com has been a true labor of love for Stephan, for us all, and the reward is that it has grown into the most-impactful platform our entire dive community has ever seen – and what’s astounding is that it has developed over the years from a homegrown, homespun effort into an industry-leading powerhouse. DeeperBlue.com really was where all the action was before social media, and remains an influential, dominant force after, spreading the news of our ever-growing water tribe and their incredible achievements. There are really no adequate words to describe the magic of what has been accomplished, and it’s all due to the original idea, commitment and positive energy emanating from Stephan. I am proud to be on his team.” Francesa Koe (Editor-at-Large 2003-present)

In 1998, BSAC held a conference in the UK that year and Stephan teamed up with them to do some rudimentary online coverage.

Of course, Stephan was still at university when he attended the conference and was consumed by a real passion to get new people into diving, especially younger people. He was finding it a real challenge to recruit new members into the University Sub Aqua Club, and one of his ideas was to introduce snorkeling as a programme for younger students (school and university ages) as a means of getting them hooked on diving. He hooked up with the main snorkeling managers at BSAC and hatched an idea to start doing some more articles on snorkeling.

DeeperBlue at the Sony Freediver Open 2003
DeeperBlue at the Sony Freediver Open 2003

It was at this point that he did some searching on the internet and came across Cliff Etzel’s ‘FreeDiving and Snorkelling Internet Magazine’. Cliff was on the verge of shutting it down as running internet sites was pretty expensive in those days and was running out of steam on writing articles. Stephan and Cliff teamed up – Stephan providing the expertise on running content sites, providing hosting, generating advertising (where he could) and funding the site generally, while Cliff tried to recruit and manage some writers especially around freediving.

DeeperBlue.com Team Members have been party to many amazing things, here as part of the Guinness World Record for the largest underwater press conference
DeeperBlue.com Team Members have been party to many amazing things, here as part of the Guinness World Record for the largest underwater press conference

Stephan and Cliff continued to operate from the same platform but as separate sites, till 1999 when they went through a redesign to create a common look and also introduced (the now famous) forums to generate some discussion. It was in 2000 that they decided to combine the sites, go through yet another redesign and create a ‘super’ site dedicated to diving in general.

“I have a unique perspective around DeeperBlue.com, as I was the originator of the freediving section of the site, having started a site related to freediving back in the late 1990s. Stephan proposed integrating that content over, plus have me as editor for the freediving section of DB. It was a great ride during my time with DB…” Cliff Etzel (Freediving Editor 1998 – 2003)

According to Stephan, the introduction of the forums in 1999 made a huge difference. It meant the site was the first moderated forum with a dedicated Freediving section, and people started moving in. The explosion in growth started in 2000 – and just kept going.
Freediving started to take a major focus of the forums and the main site around that time, and the duo recruited help where they could, though Cliff started to find life outside DB taking over and so started dipping in and out of being an editor.

In late-2001, Stephan decided that the site needed a good update and a decent Content Management System behind the scenes to take the pressure off him having to upload all the content manually. In those days the site was completely manually coded, every page had to be designed and developed individually – this was a time very different to today when anyone can set up a blog rather easily and cheaply. He decided to invest in a significant amount of his savings into a custom-built system to allow writers and editors to author and publish articles directly on the web.

DeeperBlue Through The Years
DeeperBlue Through The Years

Several things happened in 2002 that helped propel the site into its first major growth period. Firstly, Stephan organized for both him, Cliff and contributor Paul Kotik to attend the annual Diving, Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) show for the first time. Secondly, they got the sad news of Freediver Audrey Mestre’s death, and their near-real-time coverage of both the record attempts and the aftermath propelled DB further into the limelight and set them up as ‘experts’ in the freediving media field.

The DeeperBlue.net (as it was then) booth at DEMA 2003
The DeeperBlue.net (as it was then) booth at DEMA 2003

In 2003, Cliff decided to take a break from being one of the editors and Paul stepped in as the freediving editor. This year also saw DB take the first few steps at full-blown online coverage of major events. Stephan and his team covered the major Freediving competition – the Sony FreeDiver Open Classic 2003 where the late Natalia Molchanova first appeared on the scene and descended en-mass at DEMA 2003 in Miami, which proved they were ‘the genuine article’ to the diving industry.

“I joined DeeperBlue in 2005, and at this time the forum was really coming alive and developing very fast. It was a great opportunity to learn and gain knowledge from like-minded people living in all corners of the world. As I became more and more active on the forum, Stephan asked me if I would be interested with helping out from behind the scenes by accepting the title of ‘Team Leader’.” Martyn Foxen (Forum Team Leader 2005 – Present)

Since then, Stephan and his team have tried to grow both the community angle and the editorial side making sure it was not just a “forum” or just an “online magazine”. Special feature coverage of events has become something of a DeeperBlue.com specialty, and some of the biggest Freediving competitions on the planet and, of course, all the annual DEMA coverage where DB helps bring the latest industry launches to the public.

Stephan Whelan, Tanya Streeter & Emma Farrell
Stephan Whelan, Tanya Streeter & Emma Farrell

DeeperBlue.com also was instrumental in helping to launch commercial freediving courses in the UK. In 2004, Emma Farrell teamed up with Stephan to launch the freediving courses arm of DB. They concentrated on running courses in the SETT Tank in Gosport, along with open water courses in Vobster Quay and summer camps in places like Greece and Malta. They were one of the first to properly advertise freediving courses and help promote the sport by exhibiting at shows like DIVE and LIDS in the UK.

“My first interaction with DeeperBlue.com was via the forums, where one day in the summer of 2005, I saw a post asking for help in covering the DEMA show in Las Vegas. The next few days were a blur of walking several miles in the convention center, interviewing vendors and walking by underwater film-makers whose movies I had grown up loving.  The most impressive part of watching DeeperBlue.com – and Stephan, for that matter – grow over the past 12 years has been how truly professional and polished the website that he built has become, as well as his continued and everlasting patience with the myriad people he’s had to deal with (present company included!).  DeeperBlue.com is clearly a labour of love for Stephan – for whatever amount of time his contributors spend writing content, he clearly spends two to three times that on the back end, making sure the site stays up and running, chasing down potential sponsors, and maintaining a regular day job as well as a family life with a wonderful wife and two gorgeous daughters. How he does it all, I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that I owe him a beer.” John Liang (News Editor 2013 – Present)

They sadly had to scale back operations in 2010 when the Navy (through their civilian arm) decided to massively increase fees for renting the SETT. That same year, DB decided to get out of the (free)diving school business and Emma took it on, and this then became her current operation of Go Freediving which has grown impressively since then.

On the editorial side, 2006-2010 were a bit of a plateau. DeeperBlue.com continued to publish regular news and features on freediving, scuba diving, and spearfishing, and traffic continued to grow year-on-year, but Stephan also saw a number of writer and editor staff changes over this period which meant the site never fully hit its stride.

“I met Stephan on social media. As an avid diver, I had been following DeeperBlue.com for a while, and one day, he posted on Facebook requesting anybody who would be interested in working the booth at the DEMA show. I sent him a PM, and my life has not been the same since! This insanely warm, generous, social maven… of tremendous personality and great physical presence, welcomed me into the DeeperBlue family with open arms… and a cold beer. As a newly minted member of the team, I got to meet all of my diving heroes, and contribute a few small missives to the website. Most importantly, I made friends – lots of friends. Through my association with DeeperBlue.com, I was actually encouraged to become a freediver, and enter competitions as the fattest competitive freediver on the planet!” John Griffiths (Associate Editor 2015 – Present)

In 2008, Stephan hit a wall and considered selling DeeperBlue.com as it was taking up more and more of his time and by this point he’d been running the site for 12 years and he felt like he was soldiering on by himself (which, of course, wasn’t the case as he still had very dedicated, if infrequent, writers). What prevented him from selling was heading to DEMA that year. The energy he got from all the people that made the effort to talk to him and the DB crew onsite in Las Vegas was reinvigorating, and he made a pact with himself that he would spend some time reorganizing behind the scenes and getting back into the site. It was now that Stephan finally managed to obtain the DeeperBlue.com domain name (he missed it by about 30 minutes when he originally set up the site, and it ended up being a website for a blues band in the US for some 12 years!).

The DeeperBlue.com Team at DEMA 2016
The DeeperBlue.com Team at DEMA 2016

It took a couple of years, but in 2010 DeeperBlue.com got into its stride again with regular contributors, passionate editors and, ultimately, a growing audience both on the site and on social media, and this upward trend continues to this day.

Stephan said:

“With the growth of social media and its importance to online communities, I’ve seen some big changes – the big mega-forums of old are no longer the hubs they were… blogging and social media have taken over as a primary way of people communicating online, and we had to move with the times. While the forums have seen regularly posting slowly decline, site traffic continues to climb, and combined with a very active social media audience and mailing list, we have seen people coming back time and again. The forums used to be the focal point of the site, but it’s definitely swapped to now being a more rounded community with feature articles, news, and social media driving traffic and engagement. It’s very interesting to have seen the internet grow up at the same time as DB!  

I’ve particularly enjoyed the last two years where the site has grown massively in traffic, editorial topics covered (we now also have great Diving Travel, Underwater Photography, and Ocean Advocacy sections), as well as our immensely popular Photo of the Week and Video of the Week, where we feature stunning photos and videos from amateur and professional creators alike.

The whole past 21 years have definitely been a labor of love for me and it hasn’t been cheap by any means – but I have to say that DeeperBlue.com has given me some amazing diving experiences, some of my best friends and times in my life so far. I sometimes feel I have to pinch myself to see what this site has become.”

It’s amazing to see how this online diving powerhouse has developed from a small student hobby project to a sprawling website visited by millions of divers a year.

Do you have any stories of how DeeperBlue.com (or .net) helped your diving career over the years?  We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.

This feature originally appeared in the September 2017 Issue of Scuba Diver Magazine.  You can read the issue online here, or you can subscribe here.

Mark Evans
Mark Evanshttp://www.scubadivermag.com
Mark is the Editor-in-Chief of Scuba Diver magazine - a lavishly illustrated, independent diving publication that serves the divers across the world.



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